by Eugene Halton
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997.
Chapter 2: Of Life and Social Thought
"The old idea of the vitality of the universe
was evolved long before history begins, and elaborated into a vast
religion before we get a glimpse of it. When history does begin,
in China or India, Egypt, Babylonia, even in the Pacific and in aboriginal
America, we see evidence of one underlying religious idea: the conception
of the vitality of the cosmos, the myriad vitalities in wild confusion,
which still is held in some sort of array: and man, amid
all the glowing welter, adventuring, struggling, striving for
one thing, life, vitality, more vitality: to get into himself
more and more of the gleaming vitality of the cosmos. That is the
"Do not be afraid of life!" -Alyosha,
in The Brothers Karamazov
On the Problem of Going Beyond Life
Among the curious facts of intellectual life today is how peripheral the concept of life has become to most social theorists and philosophers. Despite a revival of Nietzsche, philosophical pragmatism, and the sociological "classics," contemporary social thought has tended to ignore the significance which the concept of life held for the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, producing a major blind-spot in our understanding of the spirit of that age and of its import for ours. Considering how generalized the project of a philosophy of life had become at the turn-of-the-century, inextricably connected to the parallel project for a philosophy of meaning, the history of twentieth-century thought is notable for the ways it veered away from life in the name of meaning. One might argue that the term "life" is one of those intrinsically ungraspable phantoms, capable of meaning just about anything its beholder wishes it to mean. But so too are the concepts of "meaning" and "culture" which continue to be central concerns of social thinkers, and so something more than the imprecision of the term "life" is required to explain why conceiving life as a central feature of social theory no longer animates contemporary thought.
The attempts to formulate a conception of life were key symbols of the emerging twentieth-century mind, and provide a standard by which to evaluate contemporary thought. In its tendency to deny the relevance of organic life for questions of meaning, much of contemporary intellectual life may be viewed as part of a larger metaphysic which involves the escape from organic life through rationalization. Conversely, the tendency to deny the irreducible significance of mind and its capacities to generalize and actualize reason, a denial manifest in various forms of biological reductionism, bespeaks a larger metaphysic of automatism. Together these two outlooks--roughly rationalism or idealism on the one hand and automatism or materialism on the other--express the modern ideology of the ghost in the machine.
Despite widely varying meanings of the term "life," the concept of life emerged as a central topic for the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century, although that fact has also been ignored and virtually consigned to oblivion. A possible exception to this forgetting might be the traditions of Lebensphilosophie and Philosophical Anthropology, terms which are today usually associated with the German thought. The terms may be German, but it is important to remember that the ideas comprising these schools of thought were pervasive throughout Europe and America in the early part of the century. The publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species had an immediate impact on social theorists, as one sees in Marx's admiration for Darwin's observations, despite his critique that Darwin projected the ideology of his English class-structured society onto nature....
When we remember thinkers as diverse as Kropotkin of Russia, Bergson of France, Spencer and the Darwinians of Britain, and Samuel Butler and later Patrick Geddes, Samuel Alexander, C.Lloyd Morgan, L. T. Hobhouse and others, the American pragmatists Peirce, James, Dewey and Mead, as well as Charles Horton Cooley, Alfred North Whitehead, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Rudolph Eucken, and Sigmund Freud, we are reminded of how pervasive the questions of life, nature, and evolution were. These thinkers and others all considered it important to include a conception of life in their general philosophy or framework. When we broaden further to remember writers such as William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, Strindberg, Butler's fictional works, the whole art nouveau movement, architects such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudi, we are reminded that "life," whatever it meant, was the virtual pivot of the age. The turn to the concept of life by intellectuals was parallel to the artistic movement variously called art nouveau, Jugendstil, or arts and crafts, which sprang forth near the end of the nineteenth century with a program that placed the representation of life and organic form at its center....
his 1918 essay, "The Conflict in Modern Culture," Georg Simmel pointed
out the significance of the concept of life for twentieth-century culture.
He saw in the rise of artistic expressionism and in the prevalence of Lebensphilosophie
itself, especially philosophical pragmatism, a new cultural paradox. In
Simmel's view, as we will see, human cultures are marked by an ever-present
dialectical tension between form and life. Yet this dialectic between form
and fluid vitality had reached a peculiar turning point by the turn-of-the-century:
the form of the twentieth-century was revealing itself as life itself.
Simmel drew attention to the paradox that life, inherently formless, was
becoming the form of the age--a formless form. His examples included expressionism
in art and pragmatism in philosophy. In Kandinsky's works of the period
in which Simmel was writing, color is liberated from form to become expressive
in its own right. Jamesian pragmatism, with its elevation of vital existence
over immovable truth, struck Simmel as a key indicator of the paradoxical
transposition of life to form. One might add that Simmel himself, though
still a formalist, drew from the same spirit of the time in turning to
Lebensphilosophie. Unfortunately he did not see the other half of the paradox,
the formalization of life itself, resulting in lifeless life. Instead of
a dialectical tension between life and form, a strange inversion was occurring,
producing lifeless life and formless form, each, in effect, cancelling
the other out instead of transforming it.
The physicists say that should a piece of matter encounter a piece of antimatter, a tremendous explosion would result. With hindsight we can see the cultural equivalent in the explosive artistic, intellectual, social, and political forces released in the twentieth-century, illustrating the problematic relationship which life and form had assumed. Life was central to the emerging social theories and philosophies of the early twentieth century, yet one can scarcely appreciate its importance in contemporary sanitized reconstructions of the thought of that time. The other, missing half of Simmel's equation, formalization, has frozen the life out of the current canon of social theorists and philosophers. Yet the concept of life, so indeterminate in its variegated meanings, nevertheless provides the hidden key to the critical understanding of our age, and perhaps the means to open the door to the next one....
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